Examining Hollywood Remakes—Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

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The first Gamera film was produced by Daiei Studios in 1965. It was clearly meant to cash in on the success of the popular Godzilla film franchise. The concept of a giant turtle that defends Earth from monsters may seem like a dopey idea—and truthfully, it is—but it’s so much fun, and Gamera is one of the best creations of the Kaiju genre.

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995), which was released 30 years later, is a reboot of the franchise (inspired by the well-received Godzilla reboot series of the late 80s-Early 90s) However, it’s not so much a remake of the first 1965 Gamera film as it is a reboot of the third Gamera movie, Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967). This film not only introduced Gamera’s most popular enemy, Gyaos, it was also the movie that established Gamera as a good guy. In the first film, Gamera was the villain. In the first sequel, Godzilla vs. Barugon (1966) Gamera returns as an anti-hero, joining the humans against a common enemy. By the time we get to Gamera vs. Gyaos, Gamera is the clearly the hero of the story.  In the excellent 1995 reboot, Gamera is the hero right-out-of-the-gate. Let’s look at the two to see how they stack up.

The Plot of Gamera vs. Gyaos: A series of volcanos erupt in Japan and attracts Gamera, whose arrival is witnessed by a young boy named Eiichi. Gamera climbs into the volcano. Meanwhile in a subplot nearby, the Chuo Expressway Corporation is trying to build a highway, but locals refuse to leave. Back at the main plot, a sonic energy beam from a cave in a mountain destroys a helicopter. Reporter Okabi leaves for the site. He and the road crew foreman, Shiro Tsutsumi simultaneously arrive at a protest by the locals. Okabe sneaks through the barrier to get a story. Eiichi is also nosing around the cave and finds Okabe there. The two trek into the cave. A cave-in happens and Okabe runs away, leaving Eiichi trapped. Okabe thinks he’s escaped but is abruptly eaten by a giant bat-monster, which is later named Gyaos. Eiichi escapes the cave. Gyaos grabs Eiichi for a quick snack but Gamera re-appears. Eiichi is rescued by Gamera. Gyaos injures Gamera with a sonic energy beam, but is forced to retreat after several fire blasts from Gamera.

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While Gamera is licking his wounds at the bottom of the sea, Eiichi is interviewed by brilliant Dr. Aoki about this whole adventure.  Eiichi names the new monster “Gyaos” because of the sound it makes. Dr. Aoki explains that Gyaos was awakened by the volcanic eruptions. A squadron of planes attack the mountain area but Gyaos destroys them all. Foreman Shiro’s work crew quits because of Gyaos. Eiichi shows up again because he’s figured out that Gyaos only comes out at night. Shiro reports this to Dr. Aoki, and the government tries using light against Gyaos. Gyaos annihilates the military and flies off to Nagoya to wreak havoc.

Gamera shows up to confront Gyaos and they battle in the skies over the city. Gyaos’ beams cannot penetrate Gamera’s shell but Gyaos counters by extinguishing Gamera’s flame jets with a yellow vapor. When Gamera comes down in the water, Gyaos attacks but Gamera bites Gyaos’ foot and tries to hold him until sunrise. When Gyaos’ toes get ripped off, Gyaos flies away. The toes are found and brought to Dr. Aoki, where he notes they have shrunk considerably since being discovered. Experiments on the toes reveal that ultraviolet light will kill Gyaos if he is out in the sun too long. Meanwhile, Gyaos has retreated to his cave and regrown his toes.

Eiichi barges into a top-level planning meeting and give Dr. Aoki the idea he needs: they will lure Gyaos out at night, and immobilize him until sunrise by making him dizzy! (?) They do this by using the convenient rotating platform on top of the building. They add a giant bowl of artificial blood to it. Gyaos is lured out, but the plan ultimately fails. Therefore, little Eiichi comes up with his next idea; that Gamera should be used to destroy Gyaos, and that starting a forest fire will attract Gamera there. Shiro and his crew use their construction equipment to prepare the cave area for the fire and an airstrike ignites it. As they hoped, the fire attracts Gamera. A fierce battle occurs. Gamera defeats Gyaos then drags him into the crater and flies away victorious.

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Certainly, this movie rates high on the Silly-Meter, but if you’re a kaiju fan, it’s very entertaining. It delivers what you want from a Kaiju movie. It’s got three monster vs. monster fights (most kaiju films only have two.) It’s not in the same league of the first Godzilla movie, it has its share of faults, and it is clearly designed to be kid-friendly but it’s good Kaiju fun. Now, let’s look at the reboot.

The Plot of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe: Plutonium is being transported by ship but the vessel collides with an uncharted atoll, which surprising moves. During an investigation led by Dr. Kusanagi (Akira Onodera), the atoll suddenly quakes, destroying a totem-like slab found upon it. The researchers are thrown into the ocean. One of them, Marine Officer Yoshinari Yonemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara), sees the face of a giant turtle. Meanwhile, young ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is called in to investigate a small village reportedly attacked by “giant birds.” The plutonium reawakened three ancient creatures called the Gyaos; gigantic flying bat monsters. The creatures soar over Japan, swooping down to eat people. They cause mass terror and destruction.  

It is decided to set a trap for the creatures in the Fukuoka Dome baseball stadium. It’s only structure in Japan big enough to cage the creatures and has a roof that can open up. The plan seems to be working but then Gamera shows up, looking for the Gyaos. Gamera kills one of the Gyaos but the other two flee.

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After translating the totem, Dr. Kusangi explains that the giant turtle is called Gamera. Both Gamera and the Gyaos are genetically-engineered beasts created by the ancient but advanced city of Atlantis. The Gyaos were created first and went berserk, trying to destroy Atlantis. Gamera was created to protect Atlantis. Most of the Gyaos were killed except three. Gamera was put into some sort of suspended animation, and would rise only if the Gyaos ever remerged.

Kusangi’s daughter Asagi (Ayako Fujitani) touches a stone amulet found on the atoll (Gamera) and inadvertently forms a spiritual bond with Gamera. The purpose of the amulet is to bond Gamera with a human, ensuring that Gamera will protect humans and not harm them. Asagi also develops physical connection with the big turtle, so if Gamera is injured, so is she.

Dr. Kusanagi, Marine officer Yonemori, and bird-expert Nagamine unite to save the world. They witness a Gyaos attack at the Kiso Mountain Range. Gamera arrives in time to save the day and kills a second Gyaos but the third Gyaos escapes. Gamera gets a wound and goes back to the sea to heal. Asagi suddenly develops a similar wound and passes out from the pain. Dr. Kusanagi visits his daughter in the hospital. Asagi says she and Gamera must both rest now.

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The final Gyaos quickly grows to massive proportions, with a huge wing span. Nagamine and Yonemori learn that the Gyaos reproduce asexually. When Gyaos builds a nest atop Tokyo tower, they fear the creature will soon reproduce. This motivates the government to focus on Gyaos instead of Gamera. Attempts to kill Gyaos all fail.  Asagi tells the others that Gamera has recovered and will attack Gyaos. Gamera arrives and a savage battle ensues. Gyaos almost defeats Gamera, but Asagi uses her spiritual link to revive Gamera, who kills Gyaos. Gamera returns to the sea.

This is an excellent reboot and one of the best-ever examples of the Kaiju genre. It’s serious and mature, not campy; it has a coherent story that holds together; there are some good action sequences; There are likeable human characters; and it has surprisingly good production values for a kaiju film. Taking a cue from the rebooted Godzilla series, this movie avoids the campy cheesiness of the old Gamera franchise and delivers a fine movie that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to watch with a non-kaiju fan.

Interestingly, both films give us Gamera at the very beginning. Usually, we have to wait for his arrival but in both of these, we get an appearance from the titular turtle minutes from the opening credits. Gyaos has an interesting bat design (despite the flat head), making him the most recognizable of Gamera’s foes. The 1967 film portrays Gyaos as sort of a giant vampire who drinks blood and is allergic to sunlight. However, that angle is dropped in the remake. The newer one also gives a nice nod to the 1967 movie by having Gamera need to go underwater to regenerate from injuries.

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So which is better? The remake is! As much as I enjoy Gamera vs. Gyaos—I grew up with those campy Kaiju classics—It falls short in most aspects when compared to the 1995 version, which is a triumph of kaiju filmmaking. There are several reasons why.

The first reason why the reboot is better is because it isn’t aimed at kids. The old Gamera series from the 1960s-70s always has a child as the main character. Gamera is often described in those films as “the friend to all children”. His motivation for getting involved in events in those movies is usually to save some child/children in danger. There is always a kid who’s a mega-fanboy of Gamera, and spends the majority of the movie telling everyone how wonderful Gamera is–even in the first film where Gamera is the bad guy!

In the reboot, Gamera has an unwilling bond with teenage Asagi but it’s done in a better way (the mystic bond of the amulet) and not just making him a turtle with a soft spot for kids. The psychic bond explains why Gamera protects humanity. The two have a Corsican Brothers-type situation going, so the girl is injured whenever Gamera is. That’s an interesting touch.

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While we’re on the subject of kids, the most annoying aspect of the older franchise is that the little kids are smarter than the adults and have all the obvious answers that the grown-ups seem to overlook. Just look at this film. It’s little Eiichi who figures out that Gyaos is nocturnal, as well as coming up with the idea to bring Gamera and Gyoas together by using fire (which Gamera eats) to draw him to the mountain where Gyaos is hiding. (How does the kid get into these top level meetings anyway?) The adults seem like idiots! In the remake, Asagi’s knowledge comes from her mystic bind with Gamera. Also, the adult characters in the remake seem intelligent and likable. The same can’t be said for the original. To illustrate how moronic the grown-ups are in the older films, look what they do when they realize that Gyaos can be harmed by light. One person comes up with the sensible idea of using artificial light, but that plan is rejected in favor of making the giant bat so dizzy that he can’t get home by dawn. With ideas like that, no wonder they need a child to tell them what to do.

The remake also has an impressive battle sequence at the end. While Gamera vs. Gyaos has three short but fun monster fights, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe has an epic finale. It’s the best kaiju monster fight that doesn’t include Godzilla. The visuals and productions values of the reboot are better than the 1967 movie.  Lastly, the 1995 remake does a better job in making a connection between the two monsters than the 1967 movie did. Gamera vs. Gyaos has Gamera coming to the scene because of the volcano, running into Gyoas and fighting to save Eiichi. In the reboot, they were created to be enemies by the Atlanteans and Gamera has been sleeping for thousands of years, waiting for the Gyaos to reappear. They were fated to fight. 

The old Gamera movies are campy fun and bring a nostalgic joy to kaiju fans. However, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, as well as its two sequels, hold up well as sci-fi films, which can be enjoyed by non-kaiju fans. It’s one of the best ever examples of the kaiju genre.

Going off topic a bit; you can see how Gamera: Guardian of the Universe inspired the recent Godzilla remake. The ancient protector angle and the appearance of the M.U.T.O.’s clearly came from this film. I’ll go on record as saying I enjoyed Gamera: Guardian of the Universe better than the 2014 Godzilla remake.  That’s it for this week’s look at a cinematic remake. We’ll be back next week to dissect another reboot. Until then, feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.